The Atavist: Changing Digital Storytelling
Editor’s note: This feature is part of an occasional series of profiles of the emerging standouts in the new-media landscape.
To some, the Atavist is known for its award-winning long-form nonfiction stories. Others think of the startup for its Creatavist software, the machinery behind its content. Now, with the launch of Atavist Books, the company's first foray into the world of book publishing, the Atavist is bound to win even more fans and deepen its mark on the media.
"Basically, we want to be the place where anyone who wants to do beautiful publishing digitally will go," says Evan Ratliff, who, along with Jefferson Rabb, a software developer, and Nicholas Thompson, the editor of The New Yorker's website, co-founded the Atavist in 2009. "The idea is that no matter where you want the output to be, if you have a story to tell, be it a video, photo essay, or something else, you can go into the system, design it however you want, and hit the button to publish it, all in one place."
That plan has attracted high-profile backers, including Eric Schmidt of Google, Netscape founder Marc Andreessen, and the Founders Fund, helmed by early Facebook investors Sean Parker and Peter Thiel. So far, the company has raised $1.5 million in seed funding, the result of both its bold vision for digital storytelling and its intuitive software platform.
"It's consistent with what I've been seeing, which is that the new tech basis of content companies is absolutely key," says Ken Doctor, a media analyst whose Newsonomics site covers the transforming news industry. "The platform that they create has greater purpose than simply publishing a story. It really is a tech business as much as a publishing business."
A host of media properties, including The Weather Channel and New York's Daily News, have used the Atavist's Creatavist software to tell stories. The content management system allows writers and publishers of ebooks, magazines, and other media to customize their content using text, images, video, and maps. Customers can then publish the material on their own apps or the free Creatavist app, or on e-readers and the Web. There's nearly no limit to how the content can look and sound.
Ratliff declined to give specific figures, but the Atavist generates part of its revenue from its 5,000- to 35,000-word stories, for which it charges $1.99 or $2.99 as Kindle, iPad, or Nook ebooks. (There's no advertising on the pages; subscriptions cost $19.99 annually for access to every piece released during the year or $29.99 for the complete Atavist archives.)
The company's other revenue stream is its Creatavist software, which it licenses to organizations on a tiered basis--publishing one Creatavist story is free, publishing unlimited Creatavist stories is $10 a month, and publishing to your own branded iOS app or site is $250 a month. Support packages run from $2,000 to $5,000 a month. The Atavist also charges for custom design work.
It's a potentially lucrative model, but the Atavist is just one of several media startups that recently have identified an opportunity in this space. Medium, the blog-publishing platform founded by Twitter co-founder Ev Williams in 2012, has already begun to challenge the Atavist's software with its compelling spare design. Similarly, media outlets that produce the kind of content the Atavist publishes are proliferating. Both the Verge and Vox have emphasized their desire to do longform content that's clicky and timely. "The fortunate thing for us, in some ways, is that there is a demand for long, quality work," Ratliff says.
'A Beautiful Creation'
Like a lot of media companies, the Atavist was founded in reaction to the state of journalism (and over beers). In 2009, the three co-founders had come to think that content mills like Demand Media were threatening to shorten and dumb down Web content. "People did not publish things, because no one wanted to read them on a digital device, and people weren't doing elaborate design," Ratliff says. "People didn't invest design resources to add in video just to make a beautiful creation."
The co-founders had reason to believe there was an audience for longer stories. "Evan and Nick had just come off the experience of doing this big feature piece called 'Vanished' for Wired, and they were just very excited about the possibilities that digital long form could bring to media writing," says Rabb, who singlehandedly built Creatavist for the Atavist to publish its content. "There's this notion that digital media makes people dumber, but I felt like it enabled people to have an easier time focusing on long, complex work, and that's really one of the main problems that we set out to solve with the company."
They discussed the Atavist on and off for a year. In January 2011, they finally rolled out the Atavist's first products, an app and two ebooks. "It was the most exciting creative endeavor," Ratliff says of those first two nonfiction stories, Piano Demon by Brendon I. Koerner, and Ratliff's own Lifted. "We would sit there and say, 'What if the audio [plays] with the book?' Even today, that sort of continues with the way we work on the product."
The business was up and running, but keeping it alive wasn't easy. Ratliff freely admits he "made all sorts of mistakes" in the beginning, including overlooking the "mundane aspects" of running a business, such as opening a bank account. "It's not terribly hard to launch a business," he says, "but there was a lot of asking people, 'Does anyone know anyone who's done this? Does anyone know a startup accountant?"
They also were not ready to handle the demand for content. "If we'd known that there would have been that much interest, we would have lined up six stories," Ratliff says. Today the Atavist keeps 12 to 15 stories in the queue in case it falls behind.
Creatavist and Atavist Books
Creatavist was not part of the Atavist's original business plan. Only when a venture capitalist asked why the co-founders were wasting time doing stories, Ratliff says, did it "plant the seed in our mind that the software was valuable."
By 2012, "it was much more clear why the two things work together," he says. "The editorial was sort of how we got attention, and why, hopefully, a lot of people liked us. But it also exposed people to the software." The startup began signing licensing agreements with businesses such as TED and The Paris Review. Over time the platform became more complex, adding elements such as maps and timelines to bolster stories. Eventually, Rabb says, the system evolved into "a tool that can be used to publish just about anything."
For its next act the startup launched Atavist Books in partnership with media mogul Barry Diller, film producer Scott Rudin, and former Picador publisher Frances Coady. The idea, Coady tells Inc., is to provide an alternative to traditional publishing houses, which typically focus on print.
"What I wanted was to set up a publishing house in partnership with a terrific software platform," she says. "[The Atavist] is always adapting the tech so that it suits the story, whether it's putting in film footage or illustrations or animation. That's really what appealed to me."
The venture's first novella was Karen Russell's Sleep Donation, a tale of insomnia that seizes the world. The cover is interactive, and the company launched a social-media campaign to promote the title. Another forthcoming book, about a composer who moves to New York, will enable readers to swipe over images and play sounds as the character hears them.
The books, which are available in physical bookstores for purchase, as well as on the Kindle, Nook, Apple iTunes, and Google Play platforms and the Atavist's website, represent a step forward in publishing and perhaps even in storytelling. "In a way, we just want to ask questions about what digital books might look like in the future," Coady says. "Given that the legacy structure is changing, they're really posing a different business model."
JILL KRASNY | Staff Writer
Jill Krasny is a staff writer for Inc. magazine, where she covers the intersection of entertainment and startups. Prior to Inc., she was a writer for MTV and Esquire and an editor at TheStreet. She is a graduate of the University of Southern California with a degree in communication. She lives in New York City.